On this day in 1619, Manuel Mendes da Cunha, captain of the Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista, arrived in Vera Cruz, New Spain (present-day Mexico), with only 147 slaves. He left Angola in West Central Africa with 350, but some were stolen off the coast of Campeche and others probably died en route.
So whatever happened to the stolen slaves? I thought you’d never ask. They ended up in Virginia—John Rolfe noted their arrival by counting “20. and odd Negroes”—and there became the colony’s first Africans. The pirates who commandeered them were English and Dutch, with the Dutch ship arriving first, sometime at the end of August. (Maybe today!) The English ship showed up a couple of days later. Called the Treasurer, it was partly owned by Samuel Argall, who in 1612 had sailed it on what at the time was the fastest-ever voyage from England to Virginia. (Fifty-seven days, in case you’re curious.) Four years later, the same ship delivered Pocahontas to England.
The Africans, meanwhile, may have come from a city like Loango (pictured above) but most likely hailed from the nearby kingdom of Ndongo, such as those pictured below.
In any event, these people did not fit what one historian has called “the stereotyped, parochial image of Africans from precolonial villages.” Many of them lived in cities and may even have been Christians. And if they weren’t, the Portuguese fixed that by requiring that all slaves be baptized before they arrived in America—which is why they arrived with Christian names like Antonio or Angelo (the latter actually being a woman who survived her voyage on the Treasurer).
And in related news, the first slaves arrived in Virginia exactly one month after the first meeting of the House of Burgesses in Jamestown and exactly 181 years before an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel saw his planned revolt thwarted by bad weather and nervous compatriots.
Freedom, slavery, and rebellion. These are Virginia’s sometimes chaotic legacies …
IMAGES: Bird’s-eye view of Loango from late in the seventeenth century (top); Iron Working, Kingdom of Kongo, 1670s (bottom) (both images courtesy of The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas)